So here’s a thought: how far can fiction go in making up for the shortcomings of our real-world knowledge? Can films be a source of genuine solace and aid when we are confronted with the unknown or, even worse, the unknowable?
Sorry, this is getting really heavy really fast, but these are the questions that are in my head after spending a few hours reading about Rupesh Paul’s new film about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, The Vanishing Act. It’s only been a few days since the announcement of this project and it’s already garnered media attention, controversy, criticisms, and… all right, let’s just start at the top.
For all three of you for whom we are your only news source, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 (hereafter referred to as MH370) was a flight that departed from Kuala Lumpur on March 8th, 2014 with 239 people onboard. Shortly after takeoff the craft lost all contact with air traffic control and it never made it to its destination. No trace has been found of the aircraft or its passengers, and with no hard information on what happened, the resulting media circus has had little to do other than theorize on the cause of the disappearance. And theorize it has, with causes ranging from attempted terrorist hijacking and corporate espionage to alien abduction being bandied about. For a more thorough breakdown of what we know about MH370 and its disappearance, click here.
Roughly ten weeks after the flight’s disappearance, renowned Indian director Rupesh Paul unveiled a trailer for The Vanishing Act, his film adaptation of the MH370 tragedy. The trailer was presented to a group of potential financiers at the Cannes Film Festival and was meant as a quick demo of what the film might be like. The entire thing was presented under the tagline, “The untold story of the vanished Malaysian flight.”
As reported by Variety, the project began when a reporter contacted Paul with a theory about what happened to the flight. The director’s website’s summary of the film is, “Inspired from events in real life, this is the story of five young people, their plans on revenge and the resulting havoc they infuse on the world.” The project’s unveiling has met with a largely negative reaction so far, with much of the criticism stating that the film is insensitive to those who lost family or loved ones in the tragedy. Others claim that the film seems like a crass attempt at making money by exploiting the ongoing media circus around the disappearance. The general feeling seems to that it’s a bit too soon to be embarking upon this enterprise.
In my opinion, the appropriateness of this project (or lack thereof) has less to do with how much time has gone by and more with the attitude its makers seem to be taking into it. And after wading through the media coverage that’s been released about this project, it’s… surprisingly difficult to have a solid idea of what Paul’s approach to this project is. While the director is the first to admit that a large portion of the film will be a fictionalized account, in talks with CNN he’s stated that the film is based on an investigative report. In that same article, the director claims that the film is based on answering two specific questions: “What went wrong with MH370 and where is MH370 on this earth?” Looking at the trailer itself, there is definitely a focus on exact, factual detail. The teaser is structured around flashes that show the exact times for the departure, height confirmation, and loss of contact with the real MH370 intercut with the dramatized depictions of what was happening inside the aircraft. Parts of this project seem very intent in creating a fiction that grows out of the known facts.
And then other parts… don’t. Some of the other statements the filmmakers have made seem to be pointing far, far away from all of that. In The Guardian’s coverage of the story, Paul reportedly characterized the film as primarily a thriller. “People do not want a documentary, they want a thriller,” the director said. “Why should I make a movie … that does not attract people?” Likewise, the CNN report found Paul claiming that similarities between the characters in the film and the real-life passengers and crew would be purely coincidental, an approach that be believes will be enough to avoid upsetting or hurting any of the families of the victims. Meanwhile, the reporter that provided the “investigative report” that is the foundation of the film is not only one of the film’s main investors but is adamantly set on remaining anonymous. Perhaps most alarming, in comments reported by The Indian Express, the film’s associate director Sritama Dutta explained that the only similarity between The Vanishing Act and the real case of MH370 would be that both would feature a vanished aircraft. “It has got no similarities,” Dutta said. “We cannot keep up with the true facts, it’s changing every day.”
So the creative team seems to be selling two extremely different approaches to this material. Half of what they’re saying makes The Vanishing Act seem like a critical exploration of the facts of the disturbing case, with attention paid to detail and the film’s foundation in the informed theories of journalistic research. The other half, meanwhile, seems to claim that they’re just using the MH307 story as a springboard for a generic airplane thriller, a move that seems like an attention-grabbing gimmick at best. All of this, combined with the extreme speed with which the project has materialized, does raise some questions about whether the man who brought us Kamasutra 3D is really the person to create an effective and responsible portrait of this tragedy.
And yet… I keep coming back to that first Variety report on the film, and to one line in particular. In it, Paul is quoted as saying, “Everyone in the world, they want to know what happened. Personally if you ask me, I want the truth to come out.” Even at his most grandiose, Paul has never denied that this film will contain at least some amount of fictionalized material, but there’s such hubris in the concept that it’s this film that will point us towards the truth about this senseless tragedy that I keep coming back to it. Is it possible for a work like this film to offer something where our real world knowledge has come up short? How far can fiction take us into the realm of the real but unknown?
Which brings me to the works of Paul Greengrass.
Greengrass is a highly respected British film director. While his most famous movies are probably still the second and third entries in the Bourne Film Saga, Greengrass’s most critically acclaimed works have been films that dramatically recreate real-life, high-profile events. The two most famous of these, United 93 and Captain Phillips, were both released very shortly after the events they were recreating, and both were nominees for the top prize at the Academy Awards in their respective years. Greengrass is the master of the playground that Rupesh Paul is stepping onto.
United 93 is a particularly apt comparison to what Paul is doing. The film, released in 2006, dramatizes the events that took place on board United Airlines Flight 93, which was hijacked as part of the 9/11 attacks and which crashed after the civilian passengers attempted to take back control of the aircraft, killing everyone on board. Much like The Vanishing Act, the filmmakers had extensive intelligence on the flight’s journey as seen from the ground, but extremely limited information of what happened within the flight itself.
United 93’s narrative incorporates some invention by necessity, but what makes this project so remarkable is how it recreates the facts we do have access to in an excruciatingly thorough manner. The film’s script was assembled using the flight manifest, the 9/11 Commission reports, and the sparse recordings that exist of the people that were onboard the aircraft. The cast, mostly unknown actors, were given extensive information about the real-life people that they were playing, largely from the families of those who lost their lives on the flight. Other roles, such as air traffic controllers, were filled by the real people the film was portraying. The last half hour of the film was carefully constructed to depict the events in as close as the filmmakers could get to real time. The film clearly used imagination to fill in the gaps in our knowledge, but it also shows a commitment to a dramatization that grows out of a staggeringly detailed account of the information that we do have.
Now, while the overall premises and subject matters of the productions are very close, it’s important to not overstate the similarities between the two films. Greengrass had access to a lot more information, including recordings of phone calls made by the passengers during the flight, than what Paul is working off of. The blanks that United 93 fills in are between known start and end points, while The Vanishing Act has much less concrete information to use as a foundation. Because of this, it might be wise to focus not on the methods that went into the older film, but rather on the way that Greengrass approached United 93 in its nascent state. In his treatment for the film (which you can read in its entirety here, and I highly recommend you do) Greengrass writes:
(…) The story of Flight 93 (and the entire events of September 11th) have been analyzed exhaustively by various congressional and government bodies, culminating in publication of the 9/11 report, investigations which came into existence precisely to meet the public’s demand to understand as completely as possible the meaning of those events.
9/11 was a public event with immense implications for all of us, not just those individual families tragically caught up in it directly. The meanings attached to it, now and going forward from here, matter to each and every one of us profoundly.
With all respect to those who would rather that the events of 9/11 remained sacrosanct, I assert my right to explore it and speak of it in the medium of my choice – film, pointing to my previous work exploring the impact of terrorism on individuals and societies and recognizing that any film can only ever be its own justification. If the film I make has power and truthfulness, it will justify itself to its audiences. It not, I will have failed.
“The meanings attached to it matter to each and every one of us profoundly.” At the end of the day, this might be the power that films have when dramatizing tragedies like these. They will never be able to create knowledge that is unknown to us, but they can say something insightful about what these horrible events mean to us. They can look back at the way that we’ve been affected by them, the fascination they hold over us en masse, and even define what we can get out of them beyond horror. This is how a film like this can say something meaningful, important, and even, yes, truthful.
It is still early in the process for Rupesh Paul and The Vanishing Act. It’s easy to focus on the ways in which this project could wind up as a crass or insensitive film, but we can also talk about how this movie could come to articulate something truly important about this tragedy and how it’s affected us. There is a great film waiting to be made about MH370, one that is respectful to the bereaved families not by distancing itself from the facts but by its thorough commitment to saying something of value about what was lost. It’s a film that, in Mr. Greengass’s words, will be its own justification.